Whilst writing about Depeche Mode’s new release, I realised that I’d never once listened to an entire album by the band. As a music fanatic with a penchant for electronic sounds this seemed such a crazy omission, like a painter having never seen ochre, or a baker who doesn’t know what sultanas taste like. Stuff like this really plays on me, ‘specially because the DM singles I do know, I love so much. I felt stupid. I felt incomplete. Eventually, sometime a month or so ago, I cracked, and started feverishly buying up their back catalogue on Discogs (nope, downloading’s not good enough. I told you I was an obsessive) determined to find out what the deal was. The records came flooding in – Christ they’ve made a lot – and this is my attempt to atone for my previous oblivion: it turns out that they’ve made shitloads of great songs.
Here's the first batch from the postie. And yes that is my Juno 6 I've got them balanced on. And yes I am a geek.
So here are 10 favourites. To fans who’ve lived with these records for years, I apologise if I’ve passed over something, I’m sure favourites evolve with time, and feel free to use the comments section to point me in the right direction. I’m also really tending towards the earlier 80s stuff, simply because I haven’t had time to get into the more recent output, again if anyone can tell me what’s good, I’d love to know. And finally; Depeche Mode obsessives (and there appears to be a lot of you out there) - you were right all along. Well done.
From Construction Time Again, Pipeline was recorded in a Shoreditch warehouse, constructed piece by pain staking piece from sounds squeezed from the industrial environment. The process to pull this off in 1983 would have required two things – 1) a state of the art Synclavier sampler, and 2) immense patience. You can hear both in the songs staccato swing, a mechanical ballet composed for a chain gang. Lyrically Martin Gore was moving away from DMs earlier tales of love and fashion, into darker political territory, and as he ironical intones ‘taking from the greedy and giving to the needy’ a train can be heard roaring overhead, placing the song in a landscape of empty railway hoardings and desolate subways, home to the homeless and the mad.
Any Second Now (voices)
Kicking off with a fat slug of saw toothed bass and the twinkliest of synth melodies, Any Second Now is an early indulgence of DM’s neo classical tendencies; a regal, courtly waltz as played by sad computers. Like most of the tracks on debut album Speak and Spell, financial constraints kept the sound minimal – there are only so many synths an aspiring band from Basildon can afford – and every tiny sound counts. The end result is simple, and beautiful.
What’s Your Name
Before Vince Clarke left, DM were a lot more inclined towards lighter shades, and this album track from debut Speak & Spell is a wide eyed attempt to emulate 50s rock & roll, with a side order of obsessive homo eroticism. The beat is mindless as a pop stars haircut, and listening to it feels as hyperactive and weird as being trapped inside the plastic dayglo brain of a stalking teenybopper. Which, it turns out, is kind of fun.
Behind the Wheel
Listening through the hordes of DM albums, I’ve been struck by how often the band mask a deep musicality with industrial strength, club ready beats. Behind the Wheel is a great example of this. A Martin Gore penned classic, it smuggles an arch melodic intricacy under the nonthreatening blanket of a chart ready pop song – and even a cursory listen between the thuds of the kick drum, reveals a melancholic minor key elegy gnawing away at its troubled heart.
Sea of Sin
On Sea of Sin a slinking bassline, an unforgiving 90s breakbeat, and an atonal vocal confirmed DM as the greatest baggy band South of Madchester. Tucked away on a B side of Violator single World in my Eyes, the track is a fan favourite, with David on prime sleazy form- "It gets better and better as it gets wetter and wetter..."
Similarly to Enjoy the Silence, not including Personal Jesus on this list would have felt like false snobbery on my part- it’s so widely known, and so widely covered (most successfully by Johnny Cash) that it’d be easy to ignore it as an obvious choice. And it is an obvious choice, but that’s because it’s a bloody great song. Different to many of the songs on this list, it throbs with the harder industrial guitar that characterised DM’s later work, introduced by uber producer Flood, fresh off the back of his work on Nine Inch Nails Pretty Hate Machine. The guitar becomes key to Personal Jesus, a grinding, sexy blues riff that pierces it like staples through a centrefold, it indicated another change of tack for the band, and the start of their most commercially successful run of singles.
This is such a strange, wonderful piece of music. Opening with ponderous industrial drums that drag like a brick sack in still water, Gahan begins with a typically morbid scene – “girl of 16//whole life ahead of her//slashed her wrists// bored with life// didn’t succeed// thank the Lord// for small mercies.” Her mother finds the girl, blames herself, and begins to pray, and quite out of nowhere the song jack knifes into a chorus that pulses with a doomed euphoria, uplifting and heartbreaking in equal measure. Since first hearing it, the lyrics have taken up what seems like permanent residence in my minds jukebox, and pretty much sum up the entire DM ethos: “I don’t mean to start any blasphemous rumours/ But I think that God’s got a sick sense of humour// And when I die// I expect to find him laughing…”
Shake the Disease
I love this quote from Alan Wilder, and think it pretty much sums up the aesthetic that the band strove towards as their career moved on- "there's a certain edge to what we do that can make people think twice about things. If we've got a choice between calling a song "Understanding" or "Shake the Disease", we'll call it "Shake the Disease". There's a lot of perversity and innuendo in our lyrics, but nothing direct."
I’d actual say that some songs are pretty bloody direct actually Alan (see the lyrics to Sea of Sin above…) but Shake the Disease is more of a heart tugging call for acceptance than one of DM’s more sex dungeon numbers, and it’s easy to imagine sullen 80s goths playing the track on loop in their darkened bedrooms, listening to its refrain of ‘understand me’ again and again whilst hating their parents, their lives and the entire universe, bar David Gahan.
Enjoy the Silence
It’s got to be on the list. I know hardcore fans will often call for Violator’s other big single, Policy of Truth to be given the respect it’s due, but for me personally the miserable joy of Enjoy the Silence’s central guitar riff is one of the greatest moments English pop has ever produced. I’ve played this track when I’m DJing indie sets, house sets or hip hop sets and people have always danced. The fact Depeche Mode turned this out – one of their finest moments – a good decade into their career, seals their status as titans. Apparently Gore originally wrote the track the slower paced number the lyrics lend themselves to, and was resolutely against Alan Wilder’s faster paced rendition. Luckily the rest of the band stuck with Wilder, and the song went on to become the bands signature track. Incidentally, if you want to hear Gore’s original vision, it was released on the single as the Harmonium version, which you can hear here.
I was completely unaware that this was a hit for DM (to be fair, I was a toddler when it came out..), and for some reason it seems to have slipped from cultural view. Bizarrely it rarely pops up on the countless 80s synth pop comps, which seems a huge oversight. Its attacks on greed and corporate culture resonate as much – perhaps even more- now than they ever did. In our post credit crash world of fat pocketed bankers try these lines on for size: “The grabbing hands grab all they can// Everything counts in large amounts...”
There’s an extended 7 minute version on the single, which teases the song out into a synth disco masterpiece featuring some of the finest saxophone squeals committed to tape, and that’s the one I’m posting here. I'd say it's pretty much the final word in how to remix a song (as a side note to Puff Daddy; merely putting 4 lines from another rapper over a track does not, despite your claims, qualify as 'inventing the remix').
And there you have it. 10 wonderful, irreplacable, miserable songs. Hope you enjoyed it/ felt a bit sexy/ killed yourself. As I said at the start, please feel free to use the comments to tell me where I'm right/ hopelessly wrong.